display | more...

"Sleeper" is a 2017 young adult science-fiction/horror novel by MacKenzie Cadenhead, whose previous work had been as a writer and editor of Marvel Comics titles for younger readers. The book takes place in a contemporary setting, with minimal overt science-fiction and fantastic elements.

The story follows one Sarah Reyes, who is a typical teenager dealing with things like academic pressure, romantic feelings and the social pecking order (with the social pecking order described in the book in overt references to Queen Bees and Wannabes), and who is also dealing with REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, a real parasomnia where people act out nightmares during REM sleep. The plot begins when, skipping her usual precaution, she attacks one of her friends in her sleep, and endures a round of social ostracism. This coincides with a mysterious handsome young man transferring to her school, and undertaking trials for a new drug that promises to help her with her disorder. The science-fiction elements enter when the new drug gives her what amounts to psychic powers---she can both enter people's dreams, and even possess their bodies while the sleep. However, the dreamscape seems to have more than a few dangerous entities of its own, and the new student at school seems to have both a personal interest in Sarah, and a connection to the odd research.

The book actually managed to fake me out, because when it proceeded from normal high school life to psychic-power dream world, I was expecting that to become the focus, and that we would soon be in a romance story where our young lovers (and yes, they obviously become romantically linked) have to fight off Omnicorp Matrix Drones in the dreamrealm. Perhaps I am behind in my young adult literature trends: dystopia has been such a cornerstone of young adult literature since The Hunger Games that I was expecting the story to go in that direction. Instead, the story goes back to the high school world, taking a more psychological turn as our protagonist and her boyfriend decide to get revenge on the popular kids who have been bullying them. As could be expected, revenge doesn't fell as good as it is supposed to...

There are a few things to discuss with this book. First, as with much I read this October, I find myself in the "Is a Hot Dog a sandwich?" debate. What separates science-fiction from horror? This book phrases its storyline in terms of scientific phenomena, with the powers being psychic instead of "supernatural". However, the tension and fear of the unknown feel supernatural. The moral dimension, that the evil in the story is brought on by the character's own shortcomings, make it more horror than if they were just fighting supernatural creatures.

The second point, which is that in my survey of horror and horror-adjacent fiction that can be purchased at The Dollar Tree, much of it focuses on female protagonists. Much of it is written by women, as well. Additionally, I can guess that it is marketed towards women. And often the horror (or sometimes the lack of it, as we will see later), is phrased in terms of women's social issues. The fantastic elements are really only a way to highlight the basic conflict in this book, which is the things that really scare teenagers: ostracism, cruelty and being different. I think this book does a good job at balancing external fears with internal fears.

A third point has to do with the different standards in young adult literature. As I mentioned some time ago, there are different standards for strong content depending on the motivation of the author. In a "serious" novel, meant to portray the internal process of "coming of age", references to sexuality and drug use are a natural part of the story. However, in a mass-marketed piece of genre fiction, they come off quite differently. This book has explicit references to things such as sexual assault and drug abuse that are natural if it is seen as a piece of psychologically realistic fiction, but are somewhat tacky if it is an adventure story. Despite its fantastic nature, however, I will give it the benefit of the doubt in this regard.